The soft vengeance of Albie Sachs

South African lawyer and anti-apartheid activist Albie Sachs (80) in 1988 lost an arm and the sight in one eye as a result of a car bomb, planted by the apartheid regime. If the perpetrator would be tried in South Africa and was released for lack of evidence, Sachs would be delighted, he has often explained. Because it would mean that in his country would be a free, democratic country, in which the rule of law prevailed. He calls it his ‘soft vengeance’ on the apartheid system. The documentary about his life that bears this title shows how Sachs made a crucial contribution to this new, democratic South Africa.

As a young lawyer, defending offenders of the apartheid and security laws, he was jailed twice, put in solitary confinement and tortured. It made him decide to go into exile. For twenty-five years he lived in the United Kingdom and Mozambique (where the attack on his life took place). In 1990, after the release of ANC-leader Nelson Mandela, he returned to his country.

Since then, Sachs helped to draft the new Constitution of South Africa, which is known as the most modern in the world. He also played a crucial role in the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that helped South Africa to come to terms with the legacy of apartheid. And he helped to found the new Constitutional Court, which he served for fifteen years, until October 2009.

In that period, the court made landmark decisions, like abolishing the death penalty and legalising same sex marriages, a verdict Sachs wrote. He also has warm memories of the verdict that instructed the government to provide the drug nevirapine to all AIDS-infected pregnant women, in order to prevent transmission of the AIDS virus to their babies. The state wanted to start with a small pilot project only. The Constitutional Court thought that was unacceptable, because ‘thousands of babies would be born with the virus unnecessarily’, as Sachs put it.

‘After we had read out the verdict, we walked out of the court room. The AIDS-activists gathered outside, broke out in cheers. And I started to cry. Not only because of the misery that AIDS was causing in our country, but because I was a member of a court with a Constitution that protects fundamental rights. I felt a wonderful, powerful emotion. And pride. Because of our country, our rule of law.’

By Marnix de Bruyne